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“There will be no apology from me!”

Monday, November 19, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

There’s been a veritable flood of research on how good apology is for both the soul and for damage mitigation. We’ve written about it here using the examples graciously provided by multiple actors on the US stage: Eliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods, Herman Cain, Charlie Sheen, David Letterman and, most recently, an international figure, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But new research points to the idea that refusing to apologize can be a good thing as well!

Researchers wondered why people would flatly refuse to apologize in situations where it was clear the apology would make a positive difference or when it has already been determined that the harm-doer is at fault and an apology would reduce punishment severity. After reviewing the literature on the impact of apology on both the harm-doer and the victim–the researchers believed there was likely an enhancement of the sense of power and control on the part of the harm-doer when she or he refused to apologize. So. Like good researchers everywhere, they decided to study it scientifically and completed two studies.

First, they asked research participants to recall an episode where they had harmed another person. Then they asked the participant to tell the story of what they had done, had they apologized, done nothing, or refused to apologize.

Sure enough, those who refused to apologize reported they felt more powerful, more courageous and sincere, and had a sense of greater self-esteem. At least that’s what they told the researchers they recalled.

In the second experiment, the researchers had participants again recall an example of past behavior that had upset someone and then write either an apology or a refusal to apologize.

Again, participants who were assigned to the ‘refuse to apologize’ condition reported greater feelings of power and control and a greater sense of courage and sincerity. They also had higher self-esteem than those who apologized.

The researchers suggest that when people refuse to apologize despite strong evidence that it is beneficial to do so (such as in the case of litigation) the motivation to refuse to apologize likely reflects a desire to maintain autonomy and a consistent sense of self. The finding illustrates the idea that refusing to apologize, like apologizing, can have positive benefits for us. While apologizing gives us the opportunity for forgiveness and a sense of taking responsibility for our actions–refusing to apologize can help maintain a sense of separateness and autonomy.

Which brings us to a look at the “unrepentant wrongdoer” as the researchers call the person refusing to apologize. In a litigation setting, there may be reasons beyond being unrepentant for the refusal to apologize.

The defendant may fear that an apology will merely increase the stringency of the sentence (or the damages awarded) and therefore be wary of apologizing and thereby admitting wrongdoing. If Plaintiff is seeking punitive damages, admission of wrong-doing can complicate defenses (even if it makes the jury less angry at the misconduct).

There is often a sense of great sadness and shame on the part of the truly sorry defendant who meant no harm. It may be viewed as a mistake, a common error or inadvertent slip that resulted in harm to another. In this example, a refusal to apologize may stem from the belief that an apology will communicate the defendant was somehow aware of making the mistake and made that mistake intentionally.

This research posits that defendant’s refusal to apologize is often rooted in defiant arrogance, in an abuse of power. If the jury sees the arrogance that led to the initial offense as essentially being the character of the defendant, it will likely heighten the jury’s outrage, and inflame their critical judgment. Abuse of power has never been seen as attractive, but the current cultural climate has even less tolerance of it than times past.

Okimoto, T., Wenzel, M., & Hedrick, K. (2012). Refusing to apologize can have psychological benefits (and we issue no mea culpa for this research finding) European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.1901

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